By now you’ve all seen the leaked transcripts, first published by the Washington Post, of US President Donald Trump’s first calls to the leaders of Mexico and Australia.
So have diplomats, hacks and flacks around the world who have poured over it looking for clues on how to deal with Trump’s narcissism and still get what they want.
Yes, it’s a completely unforeseeable and shocking revelation that Trump lied about ‘FAKE NEWS’. Perhaps more illuminating is that the even leader-to-leader calls aren’t reliable anymore … not if the United States is one of the parties.
Former PM Kevin Rudd appeared on CNN early Friday morning to declare that Trump sounded consistent while Turnbull would come worse back home for lines that might be what Trump likes to hear (“I am a highly transactional businessman like you”) would go down “like a lead balloon back home”.
Rudd was more concerned that how world leaders can trust diplomatic communications with the White House.
It was a common reaction.
Why leader-to-leader calls matter
“If world leaders can’t trust America when they’re on the phone with the President, what are they supposed to do?” asked Andrew MacDougall, former director of communications for Canada’s then PM Stephen Harper.
“The leader-to-leader phone call I’ll always remember from my time in Ottawa is the one where a G20 president asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the quality of the women in Toronto.
“Suffice it to say the Privy Council Office didn’t include that tabloid tidbit in their readout of the call. Then again, PCO never included very much detail about any leader call—and that was entirely by design.”
Once officials have cleared all the easy details, if an agreement still can’t be reached then it’s up to leaders to go the last leg. Even if no agreement is reached, a public communique declaring a ‘frank and honest exchange’ allows the leaders to save face but also the freedom to speak ones mind, MacDougall says. The public account doesn’t and shouldn’t really match the private conversation.
“No matter the subject, the public communications around these calls are really just marketing. Each side puts out their version of the call, highlighting the areas of concern most relevant to their populations. With friends, steps are taken to ensure no contradictory sentiments are released.”
Not very diplomatic
Others have focused on the plethora of insults Trump threw down.
In Mexico, diplomats are laughing according to a McClatchy report. “He’s the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt,” one diplomat texted to to senior official Jorge Guajardo about Trump. “He speaks loudly and carries a small stick.”
“Guajardo said it’s fine to joke about it, but the reality is that people expect more from the United States and any leader with a ‘shred of dignity’ is not going to allow themselves to be spoken to in that way.”
Leaks become the focus
Ned Price, a former National Security Council official under President Barack Obama — one of Trump’s critics — indicated that this is one development that there will be some degree of agreement in the diplomatic community, telling The Hill the leaks have gone too far.
“This is beyond the pale and will have a chilling effect going forward on the ability of the commander in chief to have candid discussions with his counterparts,”
“Granted, the White House contributed to this atmosphere by welcoming the free-for-all environment, where anonymous leaks are commonplace. But we must draw the line somewhere.”
David Frum in the Atlantic laid out the new reality for the White House’s diplomatic prospects:
“No leader will again speak candidly on the phone to Washington, D.C.—at least for the duration of this presidency, and perhaps for longer. If these calls can be leaked, any call can be leaked—and no leader dare say anything to the president of the United States that he or she would not wish to read in the news at home.”
“… The risk of national-security establishment overreach looms even larger. The temptation is obvious: Senior national-security professionals regard Trump as something between (at best) a reckless incompetent doofus and (at worst) an outright Russian espionage asset. The fear that a Russian mole has burrowed into the Oval Office may justify, to some, the most extreme actions against that suspected mole.”
Frum warns that this will inspire a cycle of misconduct from both those ‘who would otherwise uphold the norms until death’ and from Trump who can no longer trust the apparatus of government.